2011-2012 season preview: Minnesota Wild

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2010-2011 record: 39-35-8, 86 points; 3rd in Northwest, 12th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

After treading water the past few seasons in uninspiring fashion, the Wild teamed up with the Sharks to drastically change the outlook of their offensive attack this offseason. Could that streamlining paired up with better health to their defense and goaltending put the Wild back in the postseason? Wild fans are excited no matter what.

Offense

Goals were and have been an issue for the Wild since the team’s inception. After finishing in the bottom five in the NHL in goals scored last year, GM Chuck Fletcher changed things up acquiring Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in separate deals with San Jose. Throw those two on a line with Mikko Koivu and suddenly the Wild have a completely capable top scoring line. With Marek Zidlicky carrying the puck for them with Brent Burns out of town and a second line featuring healthy versions of Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, coach Mike Yeo is hoping for the goals to come more frequently. Defensively, Cal Clutterbuck gets joined by Darroll Powe to create a heavy hitting set of forwards. Eric Nystrom, Kyle Brodziak, and Brad Staubitz will wreak havoc on opponents with big hits.

Defense

The Wild saying they’re going to fall back on the trap a bit more this season shouldn’t give fans the shakes but comfort in knowing that it’s going to happen with a purpose. The defensemen outside of Zidlicky, Nick Schultz, and Greg Zanon are really green and not just because of the team’s sweaters. Jared Spurgeon, Justin Falk, and Clayton Stoner all have some NHL experience now, but they’ll need to prove they can cut it. Mike Lundin comes over from Tampa Bay looking to prove getting squeezed out of the mix there was a mistake on their part. Things could go well here, but there’s going to be mistakes made. Limiting them is what they hope the trap can help out with.

source: APGoalies

Niklas Backstrom is back again as the man in goal. At 33, time is dwindling down for the Finn to get it done for the Wild and after having some nagging injury problems last season, the Wild are hoping he can rebound with as strong of a season as they know they can bank on from him. Josh Harding returns as his backup goalie after missing all of last season with a knee injury. He was solid two years ago as the backup in spelling Backstrom from doing too much. How he bounces back after a year away will be something the Wild will have to watch closely.

Coaching

Mike Yeo enters into his first head coaching job in the NHL getting to try and turn things around for the Wild. Yeo is Dan Bylsma’s former assistant coach in Pittsburgh and after spending last season coaching the Wild’s farm team in Houston, the Aeros’ success earned Yeo the shot at the top job in Minnesota. Yeo shouldn’t have any job worries this season unless an epic losing streak comes into play. That shouldn’t happen. We think.

source: Getty ImagesBreakout candidate

Are Mikael Granlund and his magical shootout moves here yet? He’s still in Finland? Well shoot. All right, how about defenseman Jared Spurgeon then?He’s small (5-foot-9, 185 pounds) but defense is the one area where a player can step up in a big way here and grab the spotlight. It’s also the position where the Wild really need someone to step up bit and Spurgeon showed glimpses of slick ability last season. If Spurgeon can’t do it then perhaps Marco Scandella can on the blue line as well.  If anyone slumps or struggles, there’ll be chances to make it all better.

Best-case scenario

Heatley, Koivu, and Setoguchi become a revelation in Minnesota becoming one of the top lines in the league and a threat to change a game on any shift. Latendresse and Bouchard remain healthy and productive with Latendresse pushing the 30-goal barrier in the process while either Brodziak or Matt Cullen lead the way up the middle on that line. The defense plays tight and strong limiting mistakes that make Backstrom’s life a lot easier in goal as the Wild fight through the West and an iffy division into a playoff spot at the bottom of the West.

Reality

Reality here is that this is a thin lineup. An injury to any player will expose the weaknesses of the Wild’s system and any injuries to guys on the top two lines will be offense killers. The Wild are going to be a little bit better, the question is will it be enough to get into the postseason? That’s debatable and seems unlikely.

Report: Lupul will have ‘independent medical exam’

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Joffrey Lupul issued a statement Wednesday, saying he wouldn’t seek a second medical opinion after the Maple Leafs announced he didn’t pass his training camp physical.

A day later, reports have surfaced that the 33-year-old forward will, in fact, undergo another, independent medical test.

That is according to James Mirtle of The Athletic:

Earlier this week, Lupul made accusations against the Maple Leafs on Instagram.

“I’m ready … just awaiting the call,” Lupul wrote in the comments section of the Instagram post, per a screen grab. “haha failed physical? They cheat. Everyone lets them.”

Lupul, who didn’t pass his physical for a second year in a row, issued an apology yesterday. But those comments — which have since been deleted — seem to have grabbed the attention of the league.

Darren Dreger of TSN added to that, saying it’s the NHL pursuing a second medical opinion on this matter.

“The National Hockey League has that right to pursue the second opinion. That’s exactly what they’re engaging in right now,” Dreger reported Thursday.

“The reasoning behind it is because of the comment that Lupul made on social media. I’ll go back a year ago. The league didn’t step in a year ago but Lupul stayed quiet at that point. So they want to make sure — ‘They’ being the National Hockey League — that the medical evaluation from the Toronto Maple Leafs is 100 per cent above the board.”

Team USA won’t include NHL draft-eligible prospects at 2018 Olympics

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) General manager Jim Johannson has ruled out the possibility of the U.S. men’s hockey team having NHL draft-eligible prospects competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

Johannson tells The Associated Press he doesn’t view anyone from the 18-and-younger pool of prospects capable of cracking the projected lineup of non-NHL players, many of whom are opening this season playing in Europe.

USA Hockey’s assistant executive director says he’s also targeting a number of established college players, and would not rule out keeping a spot or two open for members of the U.S. team competing at the World Junior Championships this winter.

Johansson spoke in Buffalo, New York, on Thursday, where he is attending USA Hockey’s sixth annual All-American Prospects game. The game features the top 42 U.S.-born players eligible to be selected in the NHL draft in June.

Report: Former NHL referee Devorski to stop by Jets camp

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There is heightened focus on penalties right now and the Winnipeg Jets have taken the step of bringing former NHL referee Paul Devorski to training camp for help.

The league is cracking down on slashes and faceoff infractions right now, although according to Sportsnet, Devorski’s influence at Jets camp will go beyond just those two calls.

From Sportsnet:

The retired NHL referee will be at training camp on Friday where he will officiate the team during battle drills to give Jets players a better sense of how to stay within the rules.

NHL teams reaching out to the league to consult on officiating is not new, but having a referee work on-ice with a team is a less common step.

Currently many NHL teams are consulting with the league over more hot-button issues like slashing and faceoff violations, but the Jets focus with Devorski will be on past issues.

Around the league, it will be interesting to see if there is an increase in the number of penalties called, especially early on, and if so, the possible impact that will have on the games once the regular season gets going next month.

Per Michael Traikos of the National Post, there had been 91 slashing penalties called through 19 exhibition games in which real-time statistics were kept prior to Wednesday’s slate of games.

“It definitely changes how you have to defend. Those reactionary slashes of the stick, taps to the hands, are so ingrained in a defenceman,” Eric Gryba told Sportsnet. “If they stay as rigid on the rules as they are right now… the whole makeup, landscape of the D-corps is going to change, from top to bottom. Everyone is going to have to be a better skater to defend.”

The new tweak on faceoffs has also garnered some critics. Like Brad MarchandHe isn’t a fan.

“The slashing [penalties] is one thing, but this face-off rule is an absolute joke. That’s how you ruin the game of hockey by putting that in there. They’re going to have to do something about that because we can’t play all year like that,” Marchand told CSNNE earlier this week.

“Basically you have to be a statue. You can’t move. It takes away from the center iceman. I think there was even a play [in the game I was watching] last night where a penalty was called on a 4-on-4 before play on the first penalty had even started because of a draw.”

While the Jets are seeking the knowledge of a seasoned official to help them stay out of the penalty box beyond slashing and faceoff violations, it seems the entire league is in for quite a learning experience over these next few weeks.

Canucks, Kings ‘put on a show’ during first NHL preseason game in China

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SHANGHAI (AP) A golden dragon was held aloft on poles by skaters. Kobe Bryant appeared on video. NHL mascots gave the crowd a primer on what this odd game is all about.

NHL preseason hockey made its debut in China – a 5-2 victory by the Los Angeles Kings over the Vancouver Canucks – in a step by the league to crack an immense market.

The fans in Shanghai got a fast and physical display Thursday – 17 power plays and 57 shots on goal, all met with loud cheers. Each hard check drew a collective “oooh” or “aaah.”

“Obviously, you wanted to put on a show for the fans here and they got to see some goals, too,” said Vancouver forward Sven Baertschi, who scored the Canucks’ first goal.

An announcer came onto the ice to explain the finer points of the game as Fin (Vancouver’s killer whale) and Bailey (Los Angeles’ lion) acted out infractions such as charging, crosschecking, tripping and hooking.

A golden Chinese dragon came out next, hoisted on poles by seven skaters. A group of Chinese kids in hockey uniforms joined the NHL players during China’s national anthem.

With Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the NHL is showcasing two preseason games in a country unfamiliar with hockey. The Kings and Canucks play their second game in Beijing on Saturday.

Even if the rules remain somewhat of a mystery, the crowd appreciated the speed and collisions.

“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know the crowd, the noise, the atmosphere,” Los Angeles coach John Stevens said. “I think the whole thing for me is we’re here to grow the game. It’s my hope that the more they see it, the more people like it.”

Tanner Pearson scored twice for the Kings and Alec Martinez and Jeff Carter each had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 31 saves.

Team allegiances were hard to find in the crowd, the most demonstrative fans being rowdy Canadians waving their country’s flag.

Spectator Inge Zhang was more appropriately attired for an NBA game, wearing a Miami Heat jersey with pink letters. A media manager for the Shanghai Sharks basketball team, she was excited because she heard a certain NBA great might be there.

“So we came here actually for Kobe Bryant,” she said while her friend laughed. “But I love this sport, too.”

Bryant, in fact, did show, although in a video message to support his hometown Kings.

“I see more foreigners here tonight than Chinese, but I think there are still a lot of hockey fans in China,” Zhang added. “I think the NHL should take this opportunity to grow the sport here.”

That’s the plan now that the NHL has signed a contract to bring two preseason games to China for six of the next eight years.

“The effort here really is to build from the grassroots up, to try to grow the appreciation for the sport, the understanding of the sport,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said before the game. “We’ve certainly made the Chinese Ice Hockey Federation and the Chinese government aware that we’re willing to help any way we can as they gear up and prepare for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.”

But this is the first step in a long process.

“It’s great for China itself to see the NHL live and in person, see the speed of the game, how good the players are,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “But whenever you’re bringing hockey to a new country, it’s going to take time. I think it’s great the NHL is committed to doing that.”